Can Markets Protect The Tiger?

Why the poor need economic reform

(extended version)

Shreekant Gupta

Wildlife is on everybody's mind these days - while the netas in parliament are grilling the environment minister over mass deaths of tigers in Nandankanan concentration camp (oops zoo), the abhinetas appear to be busy grilling black buck deer for their dinner. Then of course, "illegal" shahtoosh shawls made from the fur of Tibetan antelopes are generating a lot of heat (of the unwanted sort) for their owners.

Predictably, the media is full of laments from activists and wildlife "experts." There is much hand wringing and second-guessing about what has gone wrong. Amidst all this brouhaha one thing is clear - our current policies and the alternatives being prescribed to them are all regulatory in nature. They comprise bans of various sort - on hunting, trade in various animal products and establishing protected areas. None of them tries to harness the power of markets to conserve wildlife. Despite the clear failure of the state in protecting wildlife, band-aid solutions continue to be proposed. Take for instance, the environment ministry's earlier decision to set up a central zoo management cadre (which mercifully the current minister has rejected). Imagine for a moment, an Indian Zoo Service (IZS) to look after the animals in our zoos on lines of the IAS and the rest of the alphabet soup that look after us so well! Lets get real, sarkari babus employed for life can never be expected to look after anything except their own interest. The attitude of those working in zoos is similar to the library staff in my university - more books mean more work. The fewer the books (and their users) the better. After all, their salaries do not depend on how well they keep the books or on how many people use them. So be it for zoo animals.

What we need instead is a radically different way of thinking about protecting wildlife, especially those creatures that are in danger because of the products they provide - ivory from elephants, shahtoosh from antelopes, skins, bones and other body parts from tigers, etc. These animals are not so much threatened by habitat destruction as by poaching for these products. In such a situation one solution often resorted to, namely, ban on trade does not work. While bans make trading illegal and risky, thereby raising the costs of such activity they also result in higher benefits through black market prices? The growing incidence of poaching indicates that perhaps the latter dominates the former. In the ultimate analysis as long as there is a demand for these products trade bans will not be effective.

Setting aside protected areas also does not work unless local people have the incentive to protect the animals in these areas. It is these people who live in proximity to the animals on a day-to-day basis and who have to bear the costs of conservation.

In this context, one solution could be to increase the supply of products in high demand through animal farming. Thus, tigers whose bones, etc. are in heavy demand in China and South Korea could be reared through tiger farming and their various body products sold. The same would hold for elephant ivory and antelope fur. After all, we do rear poultry and goat and various other animals for milk and meat. If that is not immoral and illegal then why should it be so for rearing elephants and tigers for ivory and bones, etc. In fact, the goat in the wild survives because substitutes are available - you do not have to poach to get goat milk or meat. Similarly, tiger/elephant/antelope farming would reduce the poaching of these creatures in the wild. As for the morality of this, why draw the line at not killing tigers. Aren't chickens and goats and sheep sentient beings too. Consistency then requires that those who oppose tiger farming, etc. on moral grounds should extend that logic to all animals big and small because the good lord created them all.

Some would argue that the morality of animal farming is not an issue. The real problem they would say is that legal trade facilitates illegal activity and lead to more poaching. After all, it is hard to distinguish illegal poacher ivory from that from an elephant farm. But what they forget is that a legal (and enhanced) supply of these products would push down their market price. With lower prices, the incentive to poach would also go down. The very fact that it is difficult to distinguish farmed ivory or tiger bones from those in the wild would knock the bottom out of poaching. After all, why go through all the hassle of poaching when you can just as easily rear animals for the same purpose. The key issue is the relative costs of obtaining animal products from legal (farming) rather than illegal sources. Here there are economies of scale as in the case of all farming e.g., poultry - the larger the number of animals bred the lower is the cost per unit. Besides, elephants and tigers grow easily in captivity - witness the large number of tigers bred in zoos. Farming could provide a substantial amount of tiger products in a relatively short time, thereby greatly reducing their market prices.

China and Thailand have several tiger breeding facilities and their experience suggests tigers could be raised commercially to produce an alternative supply of products. As pointed by conservation economist Michael't Sas-Rolfes, experience with bear farming in China suggests that consumers will accept "farmed" products as substitutes for wild-harvested products if they are cheaper and easier to obtain. The demand (and relative price) for illegal wild-harvested bear products has dropped considerably in China - most consumers now purchase farmed products. If commercial farming of animals were legal, producers could join forces to create a certification system that ensured quality and authenticity of the products, a major problem with poached products.

It should also be noted that a surfeit of (hitherto) taboo products such as ivory would detract from their snob value. Think about it, what is so great about a piece of carved elephant bone adorning your living room or a shahtoosh shawl. Partly it is a status symbol and indicates wealth. This in turn is linked to its scarcity value. If these things were to become commonplace they would lose their appeal just as no one displays cow bones in their sitting rooms.

Animal farming would not eliminate the need for habitat protection and antipoaching measures, but would in fact increase their chances of success by discouraging further increases in the prices of products from wild animals.

In sum, the idea is practical and workable. But if all this happened and wildlife conservation succeeded what would our bloated bureaucracy and the chattering classes do? Lets face it gloom and doom makes better copy than low key sensible policies.

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